By Terry Randolph
Part 1 of the article can be found here. Feature image graphic courtesy of the New York Times.
Games containing violence tend to get bad reps in the wake of tragedies; they become the focal point of blame, discussion and contention for both the government and people. They are used to simplify the complex reasons for the violent acts committed, creating the culprit we can place the blame on. Ultimately, it serves as a distraction from examining the real issues at the heart of events, and detracts our ability to see the factors that lead up to the boiling point. There is no singular cause that anyone can attribute towards the exhibition of violence. Plus, that generalization would mean that all who play violent video games will become violent.
So by me playing Halo, Battlefield, Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto, I am a violent person. Wonderful.
When looking at cases of violence, there has to be an examination of past events to truly understand what led to the acts. For Adam Lanza, it was a mother trying to do right for her son but a little misguided, and a growing struggle with an ineffective medical/mental health care system. Cho Seung-Hui, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, was a man dealing with selective-mutism disorder, depression, and isolation that started from a traumatic experience when he was young. These are just a few stories showing complex problems leading up to the actions they committed. Far more than just blaming games like Counterstrike for mass killings. Both stories point out an even bigger issue needing discussion; our nation’s failing mental health care system and lack of resources dedicated to it. Doctors are still prescribing risperdal even after the countless risperdal lawsuits. Things could have been different had both Adam Lanza and Cho Seung-Hui received the care they needed.
Is it fair to say violence in games can have an effect on people? Yes, but depending on circumstances; how is a person’s mental health? Not necessarily mental illnesses or disorders? Are they already aggressive in nature? Can they be influenced easily, and how do things affect them? Let us take a look at the two people I mentioned above.
Adam Lanza was a kid having to cope with sensory integration disorder; hard time dealing with touch, movement, lights etc. This would make it hard for him to talk with people, and created a sense of isolation that he could never get out of. His mother, Nancy, tried to do what she could for him; tried to find counselors that would “really understand” the situation to help, take him to schools with smaller class sizes, anything that would not overload him with anxiety. 2010 marked a big year of changes for him; his parents divorced and any social links he had he was cutting off. Most of his time would be spent in his basement playing games and conducting his research on murderers.
The tragedy was that his mother had done several things that further helped to push Adam to his brink. Many times his mother would spend days away from the home to leave him by himself so he could “grow to be independent”. When it came to counselors, she had a hard time trusting any (or all it seemed) because of the quality of care she believed they would provide. Several times, she took him to shooting ranges and explored a mutual appreciation for guns because it was a way for them to bond. She even kept several guns in the house. Unfortunately, things would change in December 2012 when he took her life, 6 women and 20 children.
Cho Seung-Hui faced the challenge of immigrating from Korea to America; a huge undertaking and life changing. When he was 9 months old, doctors first told Cho’s parents he had a hole in his heart (a “heart murmur” for other records). When tests were conducted two years later, he had been so traumatized by it that he did not wish for anyone to touch him. In America, his sister Sun remembers them both feeling isolated because they did not know English. Most times, they were made fun of and that seemed to have an effect on Cho. Mix this in with long hours at work for the parents, and Cho’s lack of communication created some worry.
Eventually, Cho would get some help with therapists, who would state that he had severe social anxiety disorder that came from the challenge of acculturation. However, it became clearer there were more problems with him at the height of the Columbine Shooting. In response to the shootings, sources say Cho wrote a letter that described his desire to repeat Columbine. It led to a diagnosis of selective-mutism (an anxiety disorder characterized by consistent failure to speak in social situations) and major depression.
In high school, Cho was able to get fantastic help to overcome with his issues; he received special accommodations that would allow him to succeed in school. For the most part it seemed to be working and everyone saw gradual improvement. When he was 18, he decided to stop the treatments and worked his way towards Virginia Tech. The counselor at his high school made sure to give him the knowledge of resources to help him, but he never made use of them.
College was the beginning of his downfall; the lack of communication with others, the time spent in isolation and lack of engaging in activities further fueled a depression that seemed hostile to himself and others. Eventually, it led to what we have come to know as the Virginia Tech massacre.
Both stories point out that, to me, that cases have to be understood on a individual basis. The problem is that in order to gather data on topics like this require experiments and studies in various forms of groups to conduct research. An example would be the studies conducted to find a link between aggression and violent video games.
Various studies have tried to determine how video games have an effect on a person’s aggressiveness, and for the most part have lead to a divide in the science community. Some believe that this is undeniable evidence that there is a link, while others cite that there are too many flaws in the studies to verify the claim. Doug Gentile, a lead researcher on media violence believes that:
Kids who play more violent video games—it changes their attitudes and their beliefs about aggression. It does desensitize them. It certainly hypes up aggressive feeling in the short-term. In the long-term it probably links aggression with fun, which is a really weird idea. Or aggression and relaxation, another weird idea.
Many people use this argument, and it is understandable. Parents want to protect their children from violent imagery because they fear it will leave them numb from long-term exposure. The last thing any parent would want is their child to be unfazed by violence happening in front of them.
Yet, Chris Ferguson believes several flaws with current methodology hinder current research. First, studies conducted have only looked at college students:
“Of course most of these college students probably have heard theories about media violence and aggression, ‘cause they’re in college and taking these classes,” Ferguson told me. “So a typical experiment is they show you a violent video game and ask you to be aggressive one way or another, and probably a typical college student can draw that link of what they’re supposed to do, basically.”
College students are more likely to show evidence of aggression than kids, Ferguson said. “It’s kind of the opposite of what we’d expect, developmentally and the reason for that probably is because these college students are guessing what they’re supposed to do and doing it, in order to get their extra credit.” 
The second and third flaw are the methods of looking for aggression and the flexibility of the results (methodological flexibility). Ferguson believes that with the way current studies are set up, researchers can pick and choose how outcomes are to fit it with their hypothesis. To see his argument, check out his research paper discussing this matter. Overall, I think both sides show that there has to be a way to examine aggression in games that is standard, and currently that proves to be impossible.
In the end, I believe the responsibility lies with the parents, players (mainly if they are adults) and studios on understanding the effects of violence in video games. When it comes to buying games, parents should be aware of what they are buying, and not just buy it because their kid wants it. I have seen too many parents walk into the Gamestop near where I live, pick up a copy of Call of Duty and only ask “Is this the popular game with kid’s these days?” Should it not be more important to look at the box, see what the rating is and why it is that rating? There is a reason, if not reasons, for why it might be rated “M for Mature”.
One thing a parent could do is sit their child down and discuss with them the role and significance violence can have; talk about the difference between death in games versus life. As silly as it may sound, it can leave a lasting impression. For adult gamers, there has to be a knowledge of what we can and cannot handle; a self-awareness of what can influence us versus not. While I understand that many can discern such a difference, there are other’s who cannot. If you see a friend who might not be able to, or you see the effect a game is having on them, talk to them. Simply through talking can there be a difference.
Studios also need to understand the role and impact violence can have on a person since games can leave a lasting impression. Games are immersive and expect to pull you into the shoes of the main protagonist. Stories can be poignant and sharp, even to the point where we can dream it long after we set the controller down.
Violence is something powerful and tragic; committing an intentional act of harming someone, inflicting pain and trauma or taking their life is brutal. There are no easy answers to understand why violence happens even though our society wants one. Simplifying any causes of violence detracts from the many factors leading up to those moments, and only serves to distract us from facing the real reasons. We have to come to grips with the fact that life is complex, and when that happens, maybe we can find the solutions to solving problems. It could also potentially prevent them from happening to. Here is to hoping.